July 21, 2016: Community Path Lessons from the Minuteman Trail

Belmont Citizen-Herald: July 21, 2016

My wife and I really aren’t bicyclists.  We had let our bikes gather dust in the garage for several years, victims of the “tomorrow-I’ll-have-more-time” syndrome.  Unfortunately, as Annie says, “tomorrow is always a day away.”

But, having passed the milestone of “turning 60” awhile back, and now moving ever so surely toward “comfortably in our 60s,” this summer, in a nod toward keeping fit, we pulled our bikes down off their hooks, had them tuned-up at Wheelworks, and declared ourselves ready to explore the western ‘burbs and beyond.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, we headed down the Goden Street hill –not worrying, yet, about how we would get back up it—glided around the High School parking lot, and were surprised at how quickly we reached Alewife using the path along the train tracks.  We then hung a left and headed out toward Lexington on the Minuteman Trail.

That’s when the day’s education began.  Our ride on this warm summer day was an experiential lesson, a class on the difference between a “bike path” and a “community path.”

For our voyage, we intentionally waited until late afternoon, thinking that we might perhaps miss the bulk of the day’s traffic.  But the users of the Minuteman Trail surpassed all expectations. There were walkers galore, ranging from young adults to the aged.  Single walkers, couples, families with young children aplenty.

Some groups of people ambled, clearly enjoying each other’s company; other folks were plugged into their headphones, removed from the world around them.

People traveled on wheels as well.  Some were pushed in strollers, while others glided on blades.  One little boy pulled a classic little red wagon, though I couldn’t tell whether his passenger was a Teddy Bear or a puppy. A young girl with training wheels pedaled furiously to keep up with her parents.

Not everyone was exceedingly careful. Just as I was getting comfortable in looking up and around, in addition to straight ahead, as I plodded along, two 10-year olds raced by, their attention focused exclusively on some finish line existing only in their imaginations.

There were the serious bikers, who view their cycles as a mode of transportation, while there were others, like us, who view their cycles as a mode of exercise.

I’ve followed the community path debate in Belmont in recent years. I’ve attended the meetings, studied the maps, read the reports.  But, as my wife and I rode along that day, it struck me that I was experiencing exactly what Belmont’s community path advocates have been seeking to communicate for years.  We weren’t simply on a bike path.  We were on a path that promoted community cohesion and shared community experiences.

In my mind, I tried to lift that trail out of the woods through Arlington and Lexington, and place it along Concord Ave. in Belmont.  I couldn’t make it happen. I just couldn’t place someone pushing their stroller down that busy thoroughfare. I couldn’t see a dad worrying about his young daughter’s biking skills on a quality-time jaunt while the cars whizz by.  I could see two tweens obliviously darting their bikes into traffic as they pass the “old guy” poking along as he rode.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t envision that path, with the community members we were passing, located along Concord Avenue.

If you don’t understand why siting part of Belmont’s community path along Concord Ave. is unsatisfactory, I invite you to spend a few hours some summer afternoon traversing the Minuteman Trail starting at Alewife.  You, too, will experience the meaning of a true community path and what it would mean to Belmont.

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July 7, 2016: Benton Library: Community-initiated, community-supported

Belmont Citizen-Herald: July 7,2016

With Itsy-Bitsy Spider strumming in the background, Sebastian explained to me exactly why he likes coming to the Benton Library.  The five-year old, who will begin school at the Wellington this fall, comes to the Benton not just to read –Sebastian likes Mo Willems a whole lot—but also to draw pictures and to listen to music and stories.  He’s such a regular at the Benton, he’s been allowed to sit at the front desk to “help out.”

Reaching kids like Sebastian is one of the goals of the Benton.  When Belmont decided in 2009 to close the building as a branch of the town’s public library, the library was reorganized into a nonprofit community-based enterprise.  For six years now, the Benton has served people not only from the Oakley neighborhood, but from throughout Belmont and its surrounding towns.

As the summer progresses, it is important to keep kids engaged, according to Elizabeth Gibson, former Belmont school committee chair and current member of Benton’s board of trustees.  According to Gibson, the Benton works hard to provide opportunities for such engagement to all age groups.  In addition to the twice-a-week sing-alongs for the younger kids, Gibson says, the library obtains the summer reading lists recommended by the Belmont public schools and makes a specific effort to ensure those books are available amongst the 67,000 volumes the library keeps on its shelves.

The Benton is not just for the kids though, Gibson emphasizes.  “Kids are really important to us. We try to be a very family-friendly place. But we serve adults also.”  Gibson notes the Benton’s once-a-month book group, along with free wi-fi service, as efforts to meet the needs of Belmont’s adults.  Adults can browse the collection of New York Times best-sellers, she says, as kids gather in front of the guitar to chatter.

Maintaining the Benton as a small community library is consistent with the building’s rich history, Gibson believes.  Built in 1892 as a chapel for the Belmont School for Boys, the building was later the place where two Belmont congregations –the Payson Park Congregationalist Church (1913) and the Belmont United Methodist Church (1921)—were first organized before moving into their own buildings.  The Benton family offered the building to the town in 1924, which accepted the gift and officially opened the Benton branch of the public library in 1930.

Despite its age, with the exception of its book shelving, the interior of the building remains virtually identical to the way it was in the late 1800s. Gibson laughs, however, that the Library did recently install air conditioning, and the free computers available to the public are very much 21st Century.

The Benton Library is deeply embedded in the community in more ways than simply its residential location.  The library is run by volunteers and funded by private donations. Neighbors mow the grass and Belmont High School students earn community service by shoveling snow.  Two recent BHS graduates are working as summer interns this year to read stories, play the guitar and keep books shelved properly.  No town dollars are used to support the Benton.

Belmont has its fair share of historic buildings that it preserves as community jewels.  But, just as much as its physical structure, it is what happens inside and around the Benton library that makes it special.  The Benton library is a classic community-initiated, community-supported venture.  As you make-up your summer reading list this year, whether for that trip to the Cape or for a lazy Sunday afternoon, you would be well-served by stopping by the little stone building on Oakley Road to pick-up your Benton library card.